BEIRUT: “You have the right not to remain silent,” says MARCH, an NGO that is fighting media censorship and teaching young people how to use their right to freedom of expression as a basis for peaceful coexistence.
“The problem is that people in Lebanon don’t know their duties or rights as citizens,” said Lea Baroudi, co-founder and general coordinator of MARCH. “We realized that freedom of expression is the right which accompanies all civic rights, and decided to start with the basics.”
Founded in 2011, MARCH aims to create an empowered civil society, the cornerstone of which is reconciliation of differences and fostering of respect between various groups, through freedom of expression.
“Freedom of expression is the catalyst for tolerance,” Baroudi added. “We have to learn how to agree to disagree.”
Hand in hand with the NGO’s FREE initiative (Freedom and Right of Expression Events), which includes around-the-year workshops, conferences and distribution of newsletters tackling basic civil rights, is its fight against media censorship.
MARCH set up The Virtual Museum of Censorship (MOC), an interactive online database of censorship cases in Lebanon since the 1940s. The website provides information about the content, date and reason of censorship for material across different categories; press, books, theater, music and more.
“Now you know, and knowing is half the battle,” says the MOC website, which offers individuals a platform to report cases of censorship to be added to the database of censored material.
The 2013 international Press Freedom Index proves the bleak reality of Lebanon’s censorship authorities. According to the index, published by Reporters Without Borders, Lebanon dropped eight places since last year’s report and now ranks at 101, below countries such as Guatemala, Mongolia and Kosovo.
“General Security, the Information Ministry, the Interior Ministry – all have a say in what gets published,” Baroudi said. “Then there are the unofficial authorities: religious entities, political parties and foreign embassies – all can apply pressure.”
Aiming to expand their network of volunteers and engaged citizens, MARCH is in the process of creating student clubs in universities such as the American University of Beirut, Lebanese American University, Saint Joseph University and Notre Dame University, among others.
Rabih el-Chaer, a professor of constitutional law at the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik and consultant to MARCH, is one of the experts who advises interested young people and bloggers about the country’s national censorship scene.
“Media censorship laws are vague and date back to the 1940s ... Although Article 13 of the Constitution specifies the right to freedom of expression, the laws are interpreted in different ways leading to arbitrary media censorship,” he said, speaking to AUB students in a recruitment drive for the university’s club.
For Maamoun Mahayni, the president of the newly formed MARCH student club at AUB, “in a region where censorship is exercised arbitrarily, it’s about time we join the fight for our right to freedom of expression.
“We’re hoping that people will realize their duty as students at a landmark university like AUB, and join our fight,” he added.
MARCH is not the only soldier in the war against media censorship. Several bloggers frequently address the issue through reposted “censored” material.
“People often don’t have the time and patience to keep tabs on the violation of our freedom of choice and expression,” said Gino Raidy, the author of Gino’s Blog. “I try to bring the important ones that I am familiar with to light, from music to books and movies and everything in between.”
Raidy’s approach to censorship is based on the idea that individuals are more qualified than religious figures and security officials to decide what’s best for them, and that the public, not the authorities, should lead the fight against speech that is objectionable.
“It is more powerful to see the public react with harsh criticism to extremist, racist or sectarian ideas, versus banning them by force via legislation or executive orders.”
One blogger who has suffered restrictions on freedom of expression is Abir Ghattas, who was accused of defamation after blogging about an ex-CEO of the supermarket Spinneys. Ghattas was asked by the police to remove the post earlier this year, and did so even though the order was illegal.
“They can’t ask me to remove the post, there has to be a lawsuit and a judge has to rule first,” said Ghattas, who has been in the same position many times before. “But in Lebanon everything is vague; I was ordered to remove it.”
The experience of Imad Bazzi was even more disturbing. In 2003, the author of the popular blog Trella was beaten and forced to hand over the password to his blog, following a post bashing the Syrian army.
“They deleted the entire content,” Bazzi said. “But since then, I make it a point not to remove anything. The wall of fear has been broken.”
Bazzi believes in coordination and mutual support between bloggers and NGOs such as MARCH.
“This is the beauty of cyber-campaigning,” said Bazzi. “If I stand up for your right of free speech, and you stand up for mine, this creates a task force and a lobby against censorship.”
Mustapha Hamoui, author of the well-known blog Beirut Spring, also publishes and discusses censored items. “As long as what you say doesn’t physically and directly hurt anyone, you shouldn’t be prevented from saying it,” he said.
Hamoui is optimistic about the future of the fight against media censorship and believes that social media is making censorship impractical and harmful for authorities.
“I think the Lebanese in general are sophisticated about their right to express themselves and, because of tradition and media landscape cannot be censored in a crude fashion,” he said. “Also I’ve been noticing a lot of activism on social media, so I am optimistic.”
Bazzi, however, isn’t as optimistic. He believes that the only change so far has been an accomplishment by NGOs and activists in breaking the wall of silence and raising people’s awareness.
“We as Lebanese have been enjoying the myth that says we live in a free country,” Bazzi said. “The challenge remains ahead and is to be able to protect freedom of expression. Till then, we should remain alert around the clock.”